Working with Words: Misha Ketchell

Misha Ketchell is managing editor of The Conversation. He talks to us about schoolboy poetry, Saul Bellow and why good writing and good thinking are synonymous.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I can't remember the first article I ever published. I was a perpetrator of some schoolboy poetry, but it was probably something for the Melbourne University student newspaper, Farrago, which means it was most probably undergraduate, worthy and strident. I remember not long after I left Farrago thinking that when I grew up I wanted to be a public intellectual, like Robert Manne. Within a few years I'd graduated to writing about home renovations and parquetry flooring.

What’s the best part of your job?

It's working with ideas. As an editor I have to be well informed about a wide range of issues and able to know enough to bluff through conversation with people who really know what they're talking about. Getting away with those bluffs is a thrill. Also when I read an article that tells me something new, or that expresses an intriguing idea beautifully, I get a sort of physical pleasure. Sorry if that sounds creepy.

What’s the worst part of your job?

As an editor you have to have lots of difficult conversations where you're telling people no, and that's never fun. I also have a particular distaste that I reserve for PR puffery or prose larded with motherhood statements and cliches. 

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Finding a mentor who was prepared to show me how to improve. When I joined The Age I was very lucky to be mentored by James Button, more recently author of a terrific book about being a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, Speechless. James spent hours and hours with me, often on weekends or in his own time, rewriting my features, sentence by sentence. I learnt so much from him about the passion and rigour and deep ethical commitment that goes into good writing. He once told me that a writer should be like a duck, paddling furiously below the water so that above it all seems effortless and graceful. 

He once told me that a writer should be like a duck, paddling furiously below the water so that above it all seems effortless and graceful.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

A journalist writing for the New Yorker once described a policeman who was giving evidence in court as  ‘a man who would never get out of a car when he could disembark a vehicle.’  It’s a great line that sums up exactly how not to write. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Some years ago, when I was working for Media Watch, the Australian ran a long piece claiming that I was colluding with Margaret Simons, then a media writer for Crikey, in my coverage of police corruption issues in Victoria. The whole article was based on the fact that I'd sat next to Margaret in court. The reporting displayed the tremendous imagination that is the hallmark of the best creative work produced by the Australian.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

If I had fewer children and more money I might be playing poker. If you mean work, I suppose I might have been a lawyer, though I'm not sure I'd have had the patience.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

It's a mixture of both. You have to have some aptitude for it, but there is so much craft that can be taught. I also think that even in fiction the best writers are guided by a form of ethics, a commitment to presenting a type of truth accurately. Helen Garner recently wrote an article in the Monthly in which she quoted a paragraph she had left out of her most recent non-fiction recent book, This House of Grief. She said she was glad she had left this paragraph out and I could see why: though it was beautifully written its showiness detracted from what she was trying to convey. That sort of instinct and fine judgement is developed over years of reading, writing and thinking.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

For me good writing and good thinking are synonymous, so the first thing you need to do is spend some time thinking, really thinking, before you start typing. (Though I've not taken my own advice in answering these questions.) In these days of word processors, you can often read articles where you can tell the writer is struggling to work out what she thinks as she writes. That can work as a device, but too often it's irritating and distracting.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

It's a bit of both. There are some things I feel that I must have that I order online. I like to browse in bookshops but I've got too many unread books on my shelf so I'm trying to stay away.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I never know how to answer this question. Maybe Odysseus. Plenty of wine and meat and some interesting travel stories, though he does go on a bit.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March showed me how keen observation, being really alive to what is going on around you, can produce beautiful writing. If you're a writer, or interested in how good writing works, James Wood's appreciation of Bellow, originally published in the New Republic under the heading 'Give All', is a must read and possibly my favourite piece of literary criticism. 

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